A landscape of lost denominations

In the US, church foundation stones tell a mostly forgotten story of religious and ethnic history.

When the pandemic stranded my wife and me in Central Pennsylvania, we spent some time exploring the area’s many small towns and villages. We focused on historic churches, and we paid close attention to their foundation stones. These told an informative story—not just about religious history but about the country’s ethnic, linguistic, and immigration history. Taken together, those limited geographical observations raise questions about our larger religious futures.

Until the mid-20th century, the US Protestant landscape was ethnically diverse in ways that might surprise us today. Several major churches were rooted in European ethnic traditions, and these were strong across the Midwest as well as the East. Over time, changes in language and immigration led to assimilation, so that these denominations stood out less. By the 1960s, most were amicably absorbed into one of the great mainline churches. In most cases, older identities were largely forgotten by nonspecialists, and certainly by most ordinary church members. Today, it is mainly genealogists who pay attention to those older memories.

As a case in point, a suburban development in State College, Pennsylvania, has a United Methodist church with modernist architecture that unmistakably proclaims a late 1960s aesthetic. It was built in 1967 as one of the last new churches constructed by the once significant Evangelical United Brethren Church. The name traces back to the great revivals that swept colonial America. Two of the greatest preachers of the later 18th century were German counterparts of John Wesley and George Whitefield: Philip William Otterbein (from a Reformed background) and Martin Boehm (Mennonite). Through the efforts of such eloquent leaders, Germans, too, had a profound awakening in these years. Despite their sizable confessional differences, Boehm and Otterbein declared their fundamental brotherhood, and the Church of the United Brethren in Christ was formed in 1800. Another great evangelist of the time was the Lutheran Jacob Albright, who inspired the Evangelical Association (1816).